Peter Perrett is one of British music’s greatest ‘what if?’ stories. As lead singer with The Only Ones his stunning half-spoken drawl stood apart from his punk contemporaries, combined with a lyricism that was as stark as it was blissfully poetic. Internal frictions drove the group to produce one of the era’s greatest singles – the sublime ‘Another Girl, Another Planet’ - but the lightning couldn’t be bottled. Eventually dissolving in a blizzard of recriminations and half-truths, the group left behind no small degree of unfulfilled potential.
Since then, little has been heard of Peter Perrett. Pleased to keep away from the music industry, a sole LP in the late 90s was the only addition to his catalogue in some three decades, a period in which he has enlivened family, friends, but rarely the public.
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Until now. New album ‘How The West Was Won’ is a delight, with his voice – age-worn and experience-scarred – attuning itself to fresh times with rare grace. When Clash meets the singer in the top room of a boozer on Caledonian Road he’s smaller than we expect, but beneath those ever-present shades he remains a quicksilver presence.
“Music has probably been one of the three main passions in my life, apart from women and having a good time,” he says with a smile. “It’s the one that I can actually do now with more conviction because there’s less distractions in my life now. Not having done it for such a long time makes it even more enjoyable.” “With me it was personal,” he adds. “I mean, I never really considered myself part of any industry. The motivation was always just to have fun, and it was a very exciting time.”
“Obviously, if I had been career-minded,” - there’s a distinct snarl when he says this, oh reader - “and thought in terms of being part of an industry I might have kept it going instead of retiring at the age of 28, which was not really the best way to make a career out of it. But like I said, I wouldn’t enjoy it so much now – I’d probably be jaded, and be on Album #40 – my album of Frank Sinatra covers, or whatever.”
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It reminded me how enjoyable music used to be in my life...
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Yet this definitely isn’t an album of Rat Pack covers. ‘How The West Was Won’ is personal, it’s funny, it’s insightful, and it’s wise – the wisdom of a life fought for and well-worn. The record owes its roots to a short burst of live dates in 2015, when Peter Perrett re-emerged to remind everyone just how special a talent he could be, and remains. “From doing four gigs in the summer of 2015 it reminded me how enjoyable music used to be in my life,” he says. “It’s the way I communicate best. I communicate my thoughts best through lyrics.”
“Once I started playing music again it felt like there was unfinished business and I hadn’t done my talent justice with the meagre output of my life. I felt like maybe I can’t really count on having another 20 years to think about doing it because procrastination has been the major obstacle to any prolific side of me that might have existed.”
As luck would have it Laurence Bell – Domino head honcho and long-time Only Ones fan – attended one of the London shows, and got in touch to offer his congratulations. A conversation was then spurred, giving Peter Perrett added impetus to actually get into the studio and nail down this album.
“It was a big incentive knowing that I couldn’t put things off forever, and there was a plan and a time schedule,” he says. “So I actually got down to writing some great songs and arranging them – I was pretty pedantic about every note being right, even the order of the songs.”
“I was focussed more than I had ever been. In the 70s I just did things the way they came out and thought that they were perfect because I was always thought I was a genius, even when I was young. As you do when you’re young, you’re very arrogant. I used to think that the way it came out was perfect – nothing could improve it. But I’m a bit more self-critical and self-deprecating, obviously, as I’ve proved to myself that I’m not infallible.”
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The record was put together with help from Peter’s sons, Jamie and Peter Jr., while production duties went to Chris Kimsey. Recorded at Ray Davies’ KONK Studios - “It’s ten minutes down the road” he says, gleefully – the band worked relentlessly, using 12 hour shifts to bring the songs into focus.
“I like to feel comfortable,” he says softly. “Domino are like a family. I need the security of that love. Part of me is fragile, so it’s good having the support. My children are my musical carers, they make sure that everything is done right.”
The material is often intensely personal, focussing both on Peter’s joys and his frustrations, his triumphs and regrets. “In lots of ways I’m too honest,” he says. “Honesty and truth in songwriting and in making records is the most important thing. As far as I’m concerned. That’s how you connect with people. The best music should move people emotionally, intellectually… sometimes physically.”
“I think that’s how you connect with people, through being honest with them. I think that’s how you keep a relationship together, it’s honesty and trust. And I had a song on the first album ‘It’s The Truth’ - truth and justice have always been important things throughout my life.”
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In lots of ways I’m too honest...
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A record sparked by the concert experience, ‘How The West Was Won’ has an immediate, vital, live feel. Recorded as a unit, the final album even utilises some early guide vocals, with different instruments bleeding into one another. “I just wanted it to be a naked sounding record,” he explains. “To me, it was very emotional and I wanted to touch people because I think that’s a rare commodity, music that touches people. It’s so disposable these days. I’m an anachronism. I felt like doing things the old way.”
Peter took control of every aspect of the record, from the final mix right down to the cover art and the lyrics sheet. “That’s another thing – when you’re young you walk into anywhere and you think you’re the best-looking person in there. You just get out of bed and think you look great. And after not looking into mirrors for decades to suddenly discover that you’re not 25 any more… I was very self-conscious. That was hard. But I understand that it’s important to get a cover”.
The conversation tumbles from topic to topic – although the singer’s family have warned him to stay away from politics and football, the past remains refreshingly open. It’s remarkable that despite the frustrations The Only Ones must engineer in him, he remains remarkably whimsical about the experience. Take the new addition of a lyrics sheet, something he disavowed during the opening chapter of his career.
“The only time I’ve ever printed lyrics was on the third album – I printed the lyrics of the title track, which I’d left off the album,” he explains. “I’d left it off the album to get back at the band because I wasn’t getting on with them any more, there was a lot of friction between us. So I left the title track off the album but put the lyrics on there!”
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From an artistic point of view there’s a certain satisfaction from just doing one more thing.
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Fans can check out the lyric sheet for themselves - ‘How The West Was Won’ is out now, nestling on record shelves across the land. For Peter, it’s already the past – and what counts is the future. “Well, as soon as I’d mixed the album the first thing I wanted to do was get back in the studio and record stuff,” he insists. “Like I said – you don’t know if you’re going to be here. People are dying all the time. So there’s a certain amount of urgency there. But at least I’ve proved to myself that it was worth doing.”
Clash can’t leave the conversation without returning to The Only Ones, to the every present ‘what if?’ that sits alongside us on Caledonian Road. “It gets to a point where you start reflecting on the one life that you’ve been given and whether you’ve used your time to its greatest potential,” he explains.“There’s no regrets about courses of action because at the time they were very enjoyable… but from an artistic point of view there’s a certain satisfaction from just doing one more thing.”
“To me, I can’t really think of the person that wrote ‘Another Girl, Another Planet’ and how good that might have been, all I know is that it feels like I’ve done the best thing I was capable of doing. Part of me thinks that the best thing I do will be better but I might not be here to do it – so enjoy the moment while it’s here.”
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'How The West Was Won' is out now on Domino.